New London Architecture

Five minutes With... Melissa Clinch

Monday 01 July 2024

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor meets new Wilkinson Eyre director Melissa Clinch to talk about succession, the attrition of women from academia into architectural practice, 21 Moorfields, and her hopes for the industry, post-election.

David Taylor  
Hi, Melissa. How are you doing?
 
Melissa Clinch  
Hi, David. Very well, thank you.
 
David Taylor  
Good. I wanted to talk to you about your recent promotion to director at Wilkinson Eyre along with Ayman El Hibri, which is part of the succession strategy that the practice has successfully moved along. How has your role in particular changed?
 
Melissa Clinch  
Well, I'm very excited to have the new role. We're only a couple of weeks in, so things are not very far along yet (laughs) but I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to mix my design work, which is completely central to my practice, with a bit more time to talk to clients, to talk with our collaborators, and have a bit more time to look at research - what we as a practice want to be saying about the challenges of the industry. So, this role will give me the freedom to pivot between those different disciplines, which is really interesting for me.
 
David Taylor  
And you, particularly, are very keen on that interface between teaching and practice, aren't you, with your work at the Bartlett? Do you want to talk a little bit about that and how that's all going?
 
Melissa Clinch  
Well, yes - I've taught for a long time, part-time, while I've been in practice. Before I had my son, I was running an undergraduate and postgraduate unit at Greenwich while I was also running major projects at work. I think teaching is such a good discipline and for anyone who has the opportunity to do it, particularly as they're coming up through the profession, it's an incredibly valuable thing to do in clarifying your own thoughts on the subject. But also, you learn really transferable skills about managing people and directing design and directing decision making. So, after I had my son, I couldn't quite manage the teaching and the working and the raising of a small child. So, I've stopped teaching a unit, but I've been an external examiner at various institutions. And as a practice, we supported a new course that The Bartlett introduced, I think, three or four years ago, which was a combined engineering and architecture course.  Jim (Eyre) was part of that set up of the course and the validation of it, and Nuno (Correia), who's our head of sustainability and myself supported a unit last year, allowing those students to come into practice, but also visiting them for critiques, pin up and supporting some of their work. And it's a really, really interesting course, because the students are working in environmental engineering, in structural engineering and in architecture, in parallel. And what that means is they can iterate and integrate that engineering thinking right into the design that they're doing. And, you know, that's something that we're trying to echo in practice. Nuno joined us as the head of sustainability a couple of years ago, and he's an engineer who sits alongside us in the practice, and that means we can look at early moves that you make an architecture, where really, you've got the most gains to make, at that point. It's very hard, once a proposal takes shape, for you to then say, 'Oh, do you know what? The core would have been better off over here. And a bit shallower'. Bringing that engineering thinking into the design, into really, early moves is essential in the climate crisis.
 
David Taylor
Yes, essential for this the whole sustainability movement, and actually mirrors in a sense, your own practice's approach to architecture? 
 
Melissa Clinch
Absolutely. You know, I think that idea of integrated engineering thinking is central. A lot of our work has grown out of, or even the foundations of our practice, grew out of bridges, engineering structures. And I think, although we have a really diverse portfolio, that kind of discipline permeates all of the work. I think a term that's really important to us is this idea of elegance. You could think of elegance in a formal way, in that something is beautiful. But also, I think elegance is a property of concept. It's: what is the simplest solution for this problem? A project that I led for the last decade was Moorfields. Actually, the massing is quite constrained by the volume outside, so it's not particularly sculptural in its form, but the idea of spanning a live station and having to build over a 60-metre gap, where a live rail goes through, the elegance of the solution is that you use the whole depth, that the building becomes the bridge. So in that project, the atrium is actually working really hard to stabilize this bridge that's spanning over it. And that's quite elegant. So I think that idea of bringing engineering rationale into design and bringing it in really, really early so that it can influence the concept is at the root of solving some of the challenges that we see today.
 
David Taylor  
So, still on education, you're at the coalface in terms of seeing the gender split in your classes. What is the state of female attrition from those classes? And actually, as a linked question, in 2021, you curated and chaired 'Female voices in the built environment', which was an event at the Barbican as part of International Women's Day celebrating diversity in industry and I wondered what you thought finally, I suppose how the profession is doing? How is it in academia? And what is the temperature gauge actually, at work?
 
Melissa Clinch  
Well, I think that's really interesting question. I mean, when you're in universities, you see a really mixed cohort; quite often a higher number of female students, than male students. And if we look around the profession as a whole, we don't see that kind of ratio. You know, 50/50 60/40; we don't see that carrying through. And as we go up the kind of seniority of the profession, we see really, really steep female attrition. As a practice, we've got 40% female staff which is above the RIBA survey averages. And it's something that we work really hard to support women moving through the profession. But it is challenging. At the moment, the cost-of-living crisis and raises on childcare costs have really, really damaged the industry. Also, as an industry, architecture in London has really relied on international talent. And that means that people often don't have their family nearby. That's very difficult when you've got a young family to support. So, I think we can do a lot, lot more to support people coming through. The panel that I chaired was a kind of reflection on a couple of projects that we'd worked on as a practice. In 2016, we competed in an RFP to design the new headquarters for Deutsche Bank. And it was an incredible time for me: I was one of the people leading the bids. I'd also found out very recently that I was pregnant, and over the duration of the bid, which was about six months, I became more and more pregnant! (laughs) 
 
David Taylor
(laughs)
 
Melissa Clinch
...And I ended up doing the final pitch with my amazing female clients from LandSec. So, Kaela Fenn-Smith, who is now at CBRE leading the ESG and Beth West, who then went to East West Railway. And we were pitching to Kathryn Harrison (-Thomas), who was the head of real estate at Deutsche Bank. It was this incredible, empowering moment, really, to be around the table with all these decision makers, and see that so many of them were women, and that I was given this opportunity to be in the spotlight, being eight months pregnant looking like a lollipop. We won the job. And we had an incredible working experience, pulling that brief together to then turn into the project that we delivered. We decided to bring everyone together a couple of years later to reflect on that whole process and what was so good about it. We were all very keen to say that there was a really positive culture about that project. And that wasn't necessarily specific to it being just the women operating in that culture; there were incredible men as part of that group. But somehow the tone of that whole negotiation was very...we kind of came to the conclusion that there weren't any egos in the room, and everybody was doing their best for the project. Everyone was working in a really collaborative way. And we were finding a way to share a vision about the project that was focused on the people that were going to use it. It was very people-centric, very much kind of inside out understanding of architecture. I'm not saying that that is solely the gift of a female panel, but I think there was something special about that culture, of having a lot of women around the table that meant that that process was so good. Sorry, that's a long answer. The short is that it was such a wonderful evening, to bring together some clients and collaborators that had worked together and reflect on the really positive things that can happen when you set a culture of inclusion in in work. I don't think what we were talking about was solely in the gift of women, but it was about a culture where everyone was collaborating, egos were put aside, and really good results came out. And so, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening reflecting on the best that can happen in the industry, if you set the right culture for design in collaboration.
 
David Taylor  
So: very final, very quick question. How do you see the market generally, in terms of your practice, workload, pipeline and the experience of others in London, particularly? And as a related question to that, are you looking forward to, or hoping for, an uplift, post-election?
 
Melissa Clinch  
I think we're all looking forward to some stability, aren't we? And hopefully a little bit of stability signalled in the market will bring some really interesting projects forward. I mean, we're still incredibly busy. And I guess reflecting back on your earlier question, it's graduate season at the moment, and whatever the market is like, as a practice, we're always committed to taking on part one and part twos, each year - we did that. all the way through COVID and through recessions. It's very important to us that that influence, and the energy that graduates bring is infused through the practice. So, we're optimistic, and we're busy, but it would be great to see a more stable condition for investment. And hopefully, everyone can enjoy a more buoyant market.
 
David Taylor  
Let's hope so. I think we have all got our fingers crossed for that future. So, thank you very much for your time. That was really fascinating.
 
Melissa Clinch  
Thank you!


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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